Some movies are great because they are subtle things, crafted with the precision of a Swiss watch, wielding the visual language of film with supernatural fluidity
And some movies are great like a punch in the solar plexus is great.
This Is England is a movie like a punch to the solar plexus.
Writer-director Shane Meadows's semi-autobiography is the story of an 11-year-old boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) who joins up with a group of skinheads in an English coastal town in 1983, with the country still smarting from the Falklands War, the death of punk rock, and the unwelcome (to a certain segment of society) influx of non-white immigrants.
It is said that the most specific stories are also the most universal, and it's hard to think of a recent screen story more specific than this one. Meadows based much of the material in the film off of his own youth in a skinhead gang, and the personal truth coming out of the material is obvious: in Shaun's pie-eyed worship of the gang's leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun), his twisty flirtation with the half-again-as-old Smelly (Chanel Cresswell), and his unthinking devotion to the white nationalist Combo (Stephen Graham). It looks like 1983 in simply uncanny detail, giving not the slightest hint that we're looking at production design.
None of that keeps the film from being overwhelmingly, even unbearably honest and relatable. Most of us were never like Shaun, but Shaun is such a perfectly-realized character that we have an almost intimate knowledge of his life and what he observes there. And even though he is just a kid, his story - rather, the ramifications of his story - comes across as a howl of frustration and pain from an entire country that spent most of the 20th Century getting kicked to the curb in one way or another, only to watch its one brief attempt at visceral release get swallowed up in the arch-conservative Thatcher administration.
The arc of youth culture in England in the '70s through the '90s - punk, post-punk, and all that comes after - is extremely familiar or at least easy enough to read about, so I choose not to dwell on it here, except to note that it was a youth culture whose embrace of faux-nihilism and violent posturing was miles beyond anything that Americans ever witnessed on a similar scale, and This Is England is flawless both as a document of one small moment of that culture, and as an exploration of the dark implications of its excesses. When Shaun comes to the gang, it is as a new member of a laid-back family, all the better to boost the boy's fragile self-esteem, and fill the hole that his father's death in the Falklands left behind. The slow and somehow inexorable transition from letting off steam by vandalising abandoned flats, to scrawling racist slogans on walls and stealing from the local Pakistani-run newsstand that makes up most of the film is horrifying, but ultimately expected. People who pretend to be hooligans run the risk of becoming hooligans.
There's a raw directness about the film, which despite several stylistic flourishes in the editing and a final scene that rather disastrously cribs from The 400 Blows (which rather lacks this film's strong political statement), is shot with the in-your-face language of a cinéma vérité documentary: indifferent attention paid to focus, frequent hand-held shots, intrusive close-ups. It's aggressive and frequently ugly; but it's the sort of cinematic ugliness that is justified by squalid subject matter. I haven't wanted to use this phrase, but it's basically punk filmmaking: artless, but that very artlessness is tied to the youthful anger that makes up so much of the film's matter.
Most of the actors are non-professionals, or the next thing to it, and that's another part of the directness. In particular, Thomas Turgoose is an exceptional find; he was himself (and I imagine still is) pretty much a little bastard, in constant trouble and banned from acting in his school's plays. So perhaps he's just playing himself; but that doesn't cover the range of subtlety across his performance. Shaun is a soft and weak child much of the time, and it often seems that he's equally likely to punch something or break out crying. Which is to say, he is an 11-year-old boy, but it's always amazing to see a movie child who feels like a real young person.
The first scene in the movie stresses Shaun's comparatively innocent side: he wakes up on the last day of school wearing nothing but underpants, and we're given a full look at his soft, pasty boy's body, with pudgy thighs and a slightly flabby stomach. It's an image that lingers over the rest of the film: with that sort of first impression, the tough performance that he puts on through the film comes across as faintly ridiculous.
It's this early stress on Shaun's boyishness that keeps us from ever accepting that he understands what he's doing, whether it's mostly harmless or distinctly evil. Perhaps we even want to protect him, a little bit; the one thing we never quite do is identify with him. We're not given his unbiased perspective on things, and shouldn't be; it's this discord between what our narrator sees and what we understand about it that makes the film a particularly uncomfortable study of the transition from callow youth to enlightened adult, the place where solipsistic anger at the world turns into righteous indignation.